Some principles of effective Pupil Premium teaching

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:
Image: iStock

We’re all focused on hard and fast interventions for Pupil Premium students, but what difference can we make in our general approach as teachers? Pupil Premium lead teacher Caroline Sherwood discusses some key tenets of effective support for disadvantaged students

There is no doubt that the Pupil Premium has enabled schools to do more to improve the outcomes for their disadvantaged students, but the achievement gap is rooted in wide societal issues, which can feel overwhelming to a classroom teacher.

However, the minute we think that we can’t make a difference is the minute we stop believing that education is the answer and we no longer believe that by working hard we can rise up to any position in society.

Teachers and school leaders who are uncompromising in their belief that education can change lives, will change lives.

Any student in your classroom can be a vulnerable student. Sometimes it is useful to generalise in order to personalise our practice so that we can do our very best for every student.

The Pupil Premium funding has had a manifest impact on classroom teachers: we all should know who our disadvantaged students are – and perhaps we know them in a way we would not have done previous to the introduction of the funding.

Our most vulnerable students are no longer invisible: they have been given a voice and are championed in every classroom. There has been a palpable shift in thinking from despondency to empowerment – they are every teacher’s focus group of students who “can” get the grade, a group of potential successes. In this way alone, I believe the Pupil Premium funding has been a triumph.

Quality teaching and learning first

“What you do on a daily basis as a teacher impacts directly on the life chances of the students in front of you.” Alistair Smith, High Performers (2011)

The pre-eminence given to the impact of teacher quality on student achievement – specifically on disadvantaged students – is supported by research, including the study undertaken by the Sutton Trust (Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK – interim findings, September 2011).

The Sutton Trust’s report states: “The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, these pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers.

“In other words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning.”

All your students are entitled to challenging and engaging lessons. This means never accepting anything other than great for them. This means ensuring you have provided them with what they need in order to make progress. This means having the courage to say “that’s not good enough” and trying something new. This means being in charge of your own CPD and learning about your own teaching.

Ultimately, it is about challenging your own thinking about sub-groups and seeing students in terms of their potential rather than their putative limitations.

Getting your relationships right with your students is your responsibility as the adult. Rita Pierson in 2013 said: “You won’t like (all your students), and the tough ones show up for a reason. It’s the connection. It’s the relationships. So teachers become great actors and great actresses...”

The point is, if you don’t like them – they can never know. James Comer (1995) puts it well: “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

With a positive relationship in place and maintained, you must then know where your disadvantaged students are on their learning journey and how you can accelerate their progress.

When planning, consider how many opportunities you have included for your Pupil Premium students to grow, to make progress, to shine.

Make sure these moments are frequent and meaningful.

How often do they have their voice heard in your classroom? How often do you celebrate their successes and encourage them to learn from their mistakes?

Study the learning in your classroom, track when your students are most engaged and challenged – ask your colleagues to support you with this. How and when is their learning at its best?

Social deficiencies

When a child’s home life is characterised by chaos, uncertainty and stress, your classroom must be a reservoir of hope, optimism and calm. Speak and listen to your students as if every conversation is the most important one you will have all day – participate fully, immerse yourself in it, value it and recognise the significance of it for you and your students.

Remember the small details. Know that this might be their first – possibly their only – positive conversation with an adult that day. Make it reciprocal, sincere and affiliative.

“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.” George Eliot

Living with stress and in poverty changes children’s brains and their thinking (Jensen, 2009). Being exposed to more discouragement than encouragement (typically disadvantaged students’ negativity to positivity ratio at home is unhealthy) will spawn fragility and deficiencies known as learned helplessness and learned hopelessness.

Learned helplessness is behaviour typical of Pupil Premium students – children who have endured repeated aversive stimuli in which there was no perceived escape. These children learn that they have no control and are helpless and, as a result, hopeless.

You will recognise these students, we all teach them: reluctant to contribute, often quiet and withdrawn, displaying apathetic behaviours.

These students will feel like effort is futile, so often refuse to make any effort whatsoever. This isn’t defiance. This is behaviour which has been learned during times of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Promoting a growth mindset with these students is vital (see the work of Professor Carol Dweck). Use growth mindset language: what mistakes did you make that taught you something? What will you do to improve your work? Praise students and frequently recognise their successes by focusing on the effort, time or the strategy they used – both verbally and in their books. Let them see that failure is a part of learning; make mistakes yourself and value them. Challenge and correct fixed mindset language in your classroom. This will, in time, begin to unshackle the student from learned helplessness.

Your classroom must be a place where your Pupil Premium students can take risks and are comfortable with making effort, even if it results in making errors.

Research has shown that smiling releases serotonin – a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of happiness. When we smile (real or forced) we prompt an increase in blood flow into the frontal lobes of the brain, which in turn increases the release of dopamine.

As a result, we feel happier. Not only will we be happier but our smile might trigger the release of dopamine in our students’ brains too. Studies have suggested that if you smile often enough, you can rewire your brain to make positive patterns more often than it does negative ones.

You can, therefore, over time, create a positive climate for learning in your classroom by smiling at your students. And I will always, without fail, smile the most at my most challenging students. I am sure we all have that one student who appears sullen and often surly. Ask yourself: has anyone smiled at him/her yet today? Make it your objective to earn a smile from them before they leave your classroom.


I remind myself every day: people are not their behaviour. When correcting misbehaviour I will endeavour to isolate the undesirable behaviour from the student. This does two things: first, rectifying behaviour is infinitely more achievable than changing who you are! The alternative feels beyond the bounds of possibility.

Second, it preserves the student’s sense of self and leaves their self-esteem intact. Every behaviour has a positive intention behind it – often well hidden and difficult to decipher for anyone other than the person it belongs to – but inherent in each behaviour choice is a good intention.

What is the need underlying the behaviour? What is the behaviour a symptom of? Separating the behaviour from the person by using phrases such as “when I look at you I see someone who/I don’t see someone who...” or “when you chose behaviour like that...” can deliver a positive message to the student as it criticises the act or behaviour, not their sense of self.

It takes careful handling – there have been times (and I’m sure there will be more to come) when I have unintentionally escalated a problem rather than de-escalated it. Engaging with human behaviour needs to be done so conscientiously and deliberately, and it needs to be planned.

Develop an inner monologue when correcting behaviour: what is the need concealed by this behaviour? What can I say to disarm, to neutralise, to de-escalate the situation? Every word becomes purposeful and considered.

Your Pupil Premium students may be more likely to display improper behaviours in your classroom: calling out, greater impulsivity, forgetting instructions due to poor short-term memory, acting without permission. These undesirable classroom behaviours could be a symptom of living in poverty and stress (Jensen, 2009).

You may feel frustrated by correcting the same behaviour of the same child every time you teach them. What proportion of behaviour issues in your classroom stem from your Pupil Premium students? What about at whole-school level?

Understanding that children raised in poverty are especially vulnerable to stressors which undermine traditional school rules – and, worryingly, school performance – is crucial. It is not a case of students choosing to get it wrong. Sir John Jones in The Magic Weaving Business (2009) states: “Those who need our support the most will probably deserve it the least.”

What they are experiencing at home – away from your influence – could be sabotaging and compromising their ability to behave in a way you would like them to. Every proper behaviour response you do not see needs to be taught – it may need to be taught every time you teach that student – and the correctional process must be positive in order to increase the student’s chances for improved future behaviour. Use phrases such as:

  • Earlier today when you...
  • I was expecting...
  • Most adults would have expected you to...
  • When you responded with... I was actually expecting...
  • A proper/appropriate response would have been...
  • I know you wouldn’t normally do this, but...

These kind of phrases will support your students by showing them how to correct their behaviour. If there was ever a need for flexibility in your classroom, it is here.

“The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.” Todd Whitaker

What you do in your classroom, and what you choose to say, and how you choose to say it all makes a difference; it changes lives, especially for your most deserving disadvantaged students. It all matters.

  • Caroline Sherwood is an English teacher and Pupil Premium lead teacher at South Molton Community College in Devon. She began her teaching career 12 years ago in Kent before moving to the South West.

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